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'Our voices are starting to be heard' | What Indigenous Peoples' Day means for Cherokee descendants living in Georgia

While groups acknowledge recognizing Indigenous Peoples' Day is a step forward, they say there is still a long way to go.

CUMMING, Ga. — For more than 200 years, people have celebrated Christopher Columbus on the second Monday of October. But this year, many celebrated Indigenous Peoples' Day instead.

On Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples' Day. 

RELATED: Biden is first president to mark Indigenous Peoples' Day

According to the Smithsonian, more than 10 states recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day. While Georgia isn't one of them right now, a few cities, including Athens and Savannah, now recognize the day.

Monika Ponton Arrington, with the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee, acknowledges this is a step in the right direction.

"We're speaking out and our voices are starting to be heard," she said. "Finally, the Indigenous people are now being able to celebrate without having to hide it, or make excuses for it. They're able to shout from the rooftops that, yes, I am an Indigenous person.”

Ponton Arrington said it's been a long time coming. As a Taino who married into a Cherokee family, she helps bring descendants of Cherokee people together through her group.

"When you come down to it, this is such a momentous occasion on so many levels: human rights levels, civil rights levels, basic rights levels," she said. "We know that Christopher Columbus never landed here in the United States. The history books that we were taught from told a very huge lie. People are finally starting to say 'oh my goodness.'"

Credit: Provided.

The 501(c)(3) organization she's a part of has over 1100 Cherokee descendants who still live in the Southeast region of the country. 

That's a region where the history of Indigenous people runs as deep as the infamous Trail of Tears from the 1830s.

"Gold was discovered. The Europeans became greedy and wanted more and more land. President Jackson did not abide by the court ruling of leaving the Cherokees where they were and in 1838, started the forced removal of over 4,000 Cherokees," Ponton Arrington said. "Men, women, children, elders, passed away on that trail to Oklahoma. And their homes were burned, their livestock was taken."

So while today is a step forward in history, Ponton Arrington said there is still a lot more to do, especially in Georgia.

"The history of Georgia is very harsh. Now we're trying to become a voice in Georgia," she added.

Indigenous Peoples' Day, to her, is also a day to educate, and rewrite what textbooks once deemed as history.

"We need to tell the truth so that way, our children and our children's children, and even our grandparents and our parents that don't know the real history, can hear it from their children and grandchildren," she said. "Understand that Indigenous people, Native people were already here in the United States in North America. It was not discovered. They're the original people.”

Ponton Arrington said the next step to truly having 'a voice' is making the Bureau of Indian Affairs its own entity. Right now, it's under the Department of Natural Resources.

"To be able to develop a community center to help with the healthcare and the housing that needs help," she said. "More and more Native people are moving to the state of Georgia from all over the United States."

RELATED: Tensions persist between legacy of Columbus, Indigenous people

But Ponton Arrington said that has been challenging to do.

"It's a struggle, politics play a part in it. But Native Indigenous people are very patient people and we are starting to work with other like-minded civil rights groups, and other tribes and try to all come together," she said. "And let our voices be heard here in Georgia."


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